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The Story Behind a BFA: Bellingham, Washington

In the Fall of 2020, the City of Bellingham, Washington was promoted from Silver to Gold-level designation as a Bicycle Friendly Community. This makes Bellingham 1 of only 34 Gold BFCs in the U.S. and only the second in Washington. This award followed many years of commitment to bicycle improvements and a major funding victory for all those invested in better biking, walking, and rolling in the Bellingham community. 

Local Transportation Funding: How It Started

The desire to supplement how Bellingham funded transportation improvements started in 2008 when Whatcom County voters turned down a sales tax levy for additional regional transit service provided by Whatcom Transportation Authority (WTA).  In 2009, due to the Great Recession, WTA was forced to cut the very popular Sunday bus service in Bellingham. Bellingham residents were not happy, needed more ways to get around, and were determined to find a way to not only restore the Sunday bus service but also supplement transportation funding for other projects desperately needed to improve residents’ active transportation options. 

The City offered to create a local Transportation Benefit District (TBD), allowed by state law but required to be approved by local voters. A TBD can be funded by either vehicle license tabs or sales tax and, since Bellingham is the regional center with many visitors from lower mainland British Columbia, Canada (only 25 miles north), the City opted to put a sales tax-based TBD on the November 2010 general election ballot.  While reduced transit service had been the motivator, the TBD allowed the City to seek funding for nonmotorized pedestrian and bicycle projects, street resurfacing, as well as supplemental transit service via contract with WTA.  Voters approved the Bellingham TBD by 58% and from 2011 through 2020, the sales tax-based TBD generated about $5 million annually.

In 2011, immediately after the TBD was approved, the City worked with citizens to create a citywide Pedestrian Master Plan, which was adopted in 2012. In 2013, the city worked with citizens to create a citywide Bicycle Master Plan, which was adopted in 2014. Between 2012 and 2021, the revenue from the Bellingham TBD allowed the City to implement 75 (18%) of the 414 pedestrian projects and 111 (52%) of the 215 bicycle projects. However, state law requires renewal of the TBD every 10 years.

Transportation Funding: Vote Yes

Because so much progress had been made with this local funding mechanism, the Bellingham City Council voted unanimously to rebrand the TBD as the Bellingham Transportation Fund and approved it for the November 2020 general election ballot, despite the unknown financial implications of the COVID-19 global pandemic. In the Spring of 2020, city staff searched for a way to focus on using data to show how projects around town leveraged funding. Realizing people were more inclined to be in favor of the fund when they visualized what improvements were already being made in their community, Public Works transportation planners and Geographic Information Systems staff created the Bellingham Transportation Fund story map website to show what the city was able to accomplish with the fund in the past 10 years: 

The website includes interactive features like a timelapse of bike/pedestrian network growth in Bellingham since 2010 and pictures and maps of transportation projects completed to date. 

Because the city could not directly advocate for voters to say “yes” to transportation funding, many local advocacy groups like Walk and Roll Bellingham and the Cascade Bicycle Club took to the streets to encourage residents to put their votes in at the poll and many were directed to use the Bellingham Transportation Fund story map website for reference. When the General Election rolled around in November 2020, the vote to renew the transportation fund for another 10 years passed with a significantly larger margin of 82%. 

Chris Comeau, Transportation Planner for the City of Bellingham, expressed that a large part of the vote’s success could be attributed to how fast the city had implemented its Pedestrian and Bicycle Master Plans and the push from community advocates to get the vote on the ballot. 

“Projects implemented in such a short amount of time and with such high visibility were very impactful to residents and the vote,” Comeau told the League. “Increased bicycle improvements did not go unnoticed and even encouraged more people, people who otherwise may not have been invested in transportation planning, to vote for the funding. Go anywhere in the city and you can see where sidewalks and bikeways were improved. When people see an amazing amount of change and improvement, they want more and are willing to take action for that.” 

Improvements Built By the Community, For the Community

Including local bicyclists in the creation of the plans is also a large part of voter approval in Bellingham. In addition to offering a Bike and Pedestrian Improvement Request form, bicyclists and pedestrians were included in all of the transportation planning to create the Pedestrian and Bicycle Master Plans, each of which took 18 months to complete. 

“Whether they need to travel to work or get to the store, most of the bicyclists I’ve talked to have a reason to be on their bike. That makes them interested in outcomes. When we go to update the Pedestrian and Bicycle Master Plans in 2021-2022, we will include even more people who bike and walk in the conversation. Once the plans are completed, we try to go out and build what they say they wanted,” said Comeau.

Making sure transportation funds are allocated to areas that need them the most is also a large consideration. When creating both the Pedestrian and Bicycle Master Plans, the city intentionally included criteria and a list of priorities for low-income neighborhoods to better understand where people in those areas, many of whom are transit-dependent, want and need to go, as well as how they would get there. Since 2010, the Transportation Fund has allowed Bellingham to make almost 70% of its pedestrian improvements and over 75% of its bicycle improvements focused in lower-income neighborhoods. 

What’s Next For Bellingham?

Since celebrating their voter success in November and having their Bicycle Friendly Community status promoted from Silver to Gold in Fall 2020, the city has continued to implement its Bicycle and Pedestrian Master Plans and ensure that improvements outlined by the transportation fund’s renewal are fulfilled. The City has an ongoing list of projects that are funded but not ready for construction yet and hopes to resume plans to bring more bike share to Bellingham, which were put on hold during the pandemic. 

If your community is looking to build similar transportation funding opportunities, Bellingham staff encourages others to use a cohesive Bicycle Master Plan that includes local bicycle and pedestrian advocates and visualizes community improvements as a starting point. 

Apply to Be a Bicycle Friendly Community Now

If you’d like to learn more about how you can improve bicycling in your community or become a Bicycle Friendly Community, visit Applications are currently open for our next round of awards and will close on September 1st, 2021 at 11:59 pm PT.